Animation and Animism, a family residency

Posted Oct. 22, 2015 by Stacey Moran

Stacey and Adam came to FoAM in Brussels to investigate how our research on Japanese animism and animation could be put to work. Stacey’s recent research focused on, Japanese folklore and mythology, the Shinto religion, the nature of kami spirits, and Japanese festivals and rituals. In addition, she has become interested in the animations of Hayo Miyazaki, looking into the making of them at Studio Ghibli, as well as their reception. Coupled with this historical research, Stacey brings her expertise from new material feminism, an approach which, in general, challenges three basic assumptions: individualism, representationalism, and humanism, and replaces those with alternatives from quantum physics: diffraction and entanglement, performativity, and posthumanism. Stacey’s overarching research goal was to combine her work on Shinto mythology and kami spirits with these tenets of new material feminism.

Adam’s research focused on how technoscientific epistemology in the West disqualifies “animistic,” “magical,” and “mystical” ways of knowing as “non-modern” and therefore “primitive.” Of particular interest to him is how technoscience in Japan—especially robotics and certain fields of computational biology—is uniquely able to incorporate animism in into its practices, which suggests that different alliances among science, technology, spirituality, and mythology are possible and maybe desirable. Adam is also interested in how computer animation in biology opens the potential for new convergences between the epistemologies life and the spiritual practices of animism.

As philosophers, we had two goals in working with FoAM: 1) to join our separate but related research into one fluid project; and 2) to put this newfound joint research into motion in the form of an artistic installation project. While the medium of philosophical thinking –especially in the West— tends to be writing, we wanted to explore how to do philosophy through other media. But since we are thinkers, and not makers per se, we were unsure of how to begin, and what exactly we wanted to produce. We knew that we did not want to merely represent our ideas in some alternate form; rather, we wanted be participants in an installation, experiment, or event in order to “feel” or “experience” the phenomena that we are theorizing.

We arrived at FoAM with one text in common: Isabelle Stengers’, “Reclaiming Animism,” (2009). Our first exercise was a brainstorming activity in which we each took turns explaining how our individual research about Japanese animism relates for each of us to Stengers’ essay. Maja composed our “idea board.” Through this guided mapping process, we were able to visualize overlaps in our thinking and to narrow down our project ideas. Adam and I often begin with a similar text (here, Stengers), and we normally have no problem discussing our ideas about a particular reading, and sharing how we each would like to take it up. However, when it came to combining our ideas about a text into one clear project, we often came up against obstacles. In any one project, focus must narrow in order for an object to manifest. We found that with two individuals and twice the ideas (and twice the investment), it had become difficult for us to narrow the project while simultaneously fulfilling both of our interests. This mapping exercise was the first step toward creating a common project, one that would fulfill both of our expectations and interests.

The second exercise aimed at isolating one objective for our project. As philosophers, and with limited experience in making, we wanted to explore various manifestations of a project that would move beyond the merely representational. This day was mainly theoretical in focus. We decided to use Karen Barad’s terminology of entanglement and intra-action. Philosophically, it was very important to Stacey to emphasize the constitutive element of entanglement, rather than a merely “connective” one. In particular, what Barad’s terminology underscores is the relational emergence, instead of pre-given nature, of subjects and objects. It was important also to emphasize how Barad’s work is in conversation with Deleuze-Guattari, Massumi, Whitehead, Simondon, and a host of other thinkers, but also to maintain her vocabulary because it specifically bridges notions of individuation and performativity, which are key notions for our project.

The goals of of this exercise were: 1) to create a common vocabulary; 2) to fuse our notions of animism and animation using this vocabulary (e.g., emergence, performativity); and 3) to envision the requirements of the installation. Keeping these goals in mind, we came up with the following guidelines for a performative installation:

  • To design an experience in which the agencies that arise from entangled entities can be felt by participants.
  • To design an experience in which participants feel as if their subjectivity is emerging out of their commingling with a variety of human and non-human forces/actors/actants/etc.
  • To design an irreducible experience, in other words, there is no one element or isolated set of elements that one could point to as a cause of what emerges out of the experience.
  • To design a hyper-responsive experience, that is, an experience beyond that of isolated and pre-existing entities that interrelate, interact, or connect; “hyper” refers to a situation beyond interaction and is rather one of intra-action. Intra-action does not presume a pre-given entity, but rather, a dynamic one that emerges from out of its relations.
  • To design an experience in which the self can be felt as a pattern—a thing emerges as having some form of consistency because the pattern is sustained over time.
  • To design an experience in which participants feel that this pattern or habit is only temporary; it is flexible and vulnerable to outside forces.

Once we had these clear objectives in hand, we tried to get more concrete. What would we like this experience to feel like? We searched for past personal experiences that felt like entanglement. Exploring exactly what we wanted participants in an installation to experience/feel was challenging. It wasn’t difficult to describe personal feelings of connection (e.g., watching children play, enjoying family meals), but these seemed counter to the project that aims to isolate the emergence of a subject who feels its entanglements with others, both human and non-human. As we explored the realm of personal feeling, the realm of animism seemed to slip away from the discussion. We decided to let these ideas percolate until the next meeting. Exploring concrete relations was helpful in that it reminded us of certain traps we don’t want to fall into. More importantly, however, we came to understand that the notion of “feeling” is based on assumptions of individualism and emotion. Trying to move outside this realm creates a great challenge for creating an event in which people/individuals would experience sensations other than emotional (i.e., that they are preexisting individuals who then become connected to other preexisting individuals, human or nonhuman).

Our final meeting brought all the elements of the project together into a number of possible iterations of an installation. We revitalized the notion of magic and animism from our research by conceiving a performative installation in which the biological laboratory is re-animated by ritualizing the many routines that are performed there. In other words, the installation would attempt to animate the lab by giving voice to the spiritual practices that lie dormant within the de-animated space of modern scientific practice. The project would “enact” a spiritual haunting of modern science.

Fiona and Ivy’s project.

During our meetings with Maja and Nik, Fiona and Ivy were guided by Rasa. Stacey and Adam felt as though they had a magical babysitter – someone to whisk away the children and allow them to work uninterrupted. But when they saw what the girls had been working on, they were amazed! The photo taken by Rasa of the girls jumping in the air represents well the way we all felt about our stay in Brussels. Stacey was so excited by their creation of spirits, that she took some time out to join them in the Exquisite Corpse game that lent narrative to the spirits and their objects.

First, the girls watched a few animated films by Hayo Miyazaki: Castle in the Sky, Spirited Away, and Ponyo. Then they created their own spirits from everyday objects, and gave them names: Dust Bunny Spirit and Baby Flower Spirit. Next, using found objects, natural materials, and art supplies, the girls created representations of their spirits. With a vision in mind, the girls walked the city, searching for places where their spirits might make a home or could simply hide from prying eyes. Rasa taught them to use a film camera and they took pictures of each of the sacred spaces they found. Playing the game Exquisite Corpse a number of times, the girls came up with many alternate narratives for the spirits to have an adventure. Fiona composed a final narrative entitled, “Dust Bunny’s Difficult Decision,” and Ivy illustrated the story. Finally, a video of the pictures was presented to all of us at FoAM that day, and the girls discussed their project with us.

After the residency...

Since we moved to Arizona in August, we plan to familiarize ourselves with the maker communities in our new home. Adam begins his work at Arizona State University in the department of Arts, Media, and Engineering in conjunction with the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. We look forward to continuing our project and the many opportunities for both funding and making we will encounter at ASU.